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How to build a directory website with WordPress – a step by step guide

There are so many tutorials and plugins that promise to help you build a directory website with WordPress that it can be difficult to decide where to begin.

That’s why we created this step by step guide on how to build a directory website with WordPress. It is written by web developers who have helped thousands of others build their own.

Our aim is to make sure you can add all of the features a directory website needs in as simple a way as possible.

In this blog, we used Toolset Directory to build our website. Check out our review of Toolset for more information about the plugins.

Step by step guide to building a directory website with WordPress

Here are the steps to building a directory website which we will outline below:

  • Decide on the niche for your directory website
  • How to monetize your directory website
  • Choose the best CMS
  • Get a domain and hosting
  • Choose a directory theme
  • Choose the best plugins
  • Create the features

Before you start building the features we outline below, make sure to download your free WordPress test directory website where you can practice adding everything as you read.

Build a directory website with WordPress

1. Choose the niche for your directory website

Before you start adding any features, picking the theme or web host you will need to decide exactly what you will list on your directory website.

There are a few things to consider here:

What would you be interested in listing:

Before you conduct any research you first need to decide exactly what it is you would be interested in selling.

It’s one thing realizing that there is a market for a directory website that lists pets for sale but what if you are no animal fan and lack the basic knowledge in what people are willing to buy?

Of course, you can spend time researching and becoming an expert but this will take time which your directory website might not have.

A better approach will be to make a list of areas that interest you and then narrowing those down until you find a niche that not only has a market but also matches your interests.

What is there a demand for:

Now that you have your list of what you would be interested in selling you can now start to identify exactly what will sell.

The first thing to do is to conduct keyword research and identify what users are searching for online. The best way to do this is by using keyword research tools such as Google Keyword Planner or Ahrefs.

Once you know which tool you want to use you can start researching the best longtail keywords which you can target on your directory website. You will want search terms which will be fairly easy to rank for but will still have a large number of people searching for them.

For example, imagine that after some research you have decided that you want to list restaurants in Chicago on your directory website.

The search term “Best pizza in Chicago” has around 13,000 monthly searches and also has a low keyword difficulty – meaning it will be fairly easy to rank highly for it.

AHRefs is a great tool for directory websites

Once you have a list of similar long-tail keywords to this one on the same subject you know that there is a market for your type of directory website.

Check if there are already other directory websites in your area

While you might have a list of longtail keywords that you can target, you still want to research the competition.

If there are a number of popular directory websites that are already in your target market then it might be worth choosing another theme for your directory website.

Using our example for “Best pizza in Chicago” using Ahrefs, we can see which websites already rank highly for the search.

AHRefs list

You can use Ahrefs’ rankings system to see how popular are the websites which are at the top of searches.

2. How to monetize your website

Now that you have decided what type of directory website you will be building comes an arguably even more important question. How will you make money from it?

Here are the three most common ways to do so:

1. Sell space for advertisers

As people start to regularly use your directory website you will be able to sell advertising space on there.

One of the best ways to ensure you get the most relevant ads for your clients is by using Google AdSense. It will identify the best adverts and the highest paying to maximize your revenue.

2. Charge for listings

When sellers realize that your directory website is an effective place to list their products they will be more willing to pay for that valuable ad space.

As such, you can start charging for the right for users to sell their items.

There are a number of incentives which you can offer to make this a more attractive option:

  • Create expiration dates for free listings – this will allow you to charge for premium users who will want their listings to be up indefinitely.
  • Charge for featured listings – give sellers the option to pay to see their listings at the top of searches.
  • Allow affiliate listings – a number of items might have complementary products that users will want to buy. For example, if you’re selling shoes then your customers might want to buy shoe polish. You can find affiliate offers where you receive a commission if people buy products from your website.

3. Create a membership

As your traffic grows and you start to notice a steady stream of loyal customers you can create a membership system.

Your membership system can encourage users to sign up in order to access the full details of your listings or you can also hide the premium listings to guests.

Now that you have identified your directory website’s niche and how to monetize it we can get started with building the website.

3. Choose the CMS

There are a number of great platforms but we recommend that you build your directory website with WordPress.

WordPress is incredibly adaptive and works for websites with low traffic to websites that see millions of visitors each month such as Colorlib.

WordPress has a number of other advantages:

  • It’s by far the most popular platform with around one in three websites powered by WordPress.
  • It boasts a strong community – WordPress has one of the largest Open Source communities of developers, designers and other website experts.
  • It is a lot cheaper to build and run a website on WordPress than on the likes of Drupal.
  • WordPress offers thousands of beautiful and responsive themes to choose from.
  • WordPress also has a huge list of plugins to enhance your website.
  • You can create nearly all the features you need for a directory website without complex PHP coding.

4. Choose a reliable web host

A good web host will be important especially as your website’s traffic grows, putting further strain on your web infrastructure.

Whatever web host you choose will have to be able to handle sudden spikes in traffic, be reliable so you don’t suffer any issues with your site and be able to ensure your website runs quickly for your customers.

One of the best web hosts is Bluehost which has 15 years of WordPress experience, offers free one-year domain registration and free ad credits among other perks.

Bluehost is a great option to host directory websites on WordPress

There are also a number of other great hosting options. Check out Colorlib’s guide to the best web hosting services to see which one fits your requirements.

5. Make your website stand out with a great directory theme

Now that you have your WordPress website installed you can begin to think about how it will look by choosing your directory theme.

You would be forgiven for thinking a theme is all about looks but actually, there are other factors to consider. Here is a quick list of requirements for your theme:

  • Does it support the most popular plugins?
  • How often is it updated?
  • Does it support SEO?
  • Is it multilingual ready?
  • How responsive are the layouts to different screen sizes?

Check out Colorlib’s list of the best directory WordPress themes for inspiration.

6. Choose the plugin to build your directory website

You could be forgiven for assuming you would need multiple plugins to build the features for a website as complex as a directory website but in fact, we will use just one.

Toolset Directory provides all of the features we will need to build a directory website with WordPress. I am using Toolset because:

  • You do not need to overload your website with other plugins. All you need is Toolset Directory.
  • These features can be added without any complex PHP coding.
  • It works with all themes.
  • It is compatible with other important plugins for a directory website such as WooCommerce, WPML and Elementor.
  • It is regularly updated with new features being added all the time.

directory website

7. Create the directory website’s features

These are the features we will add as we build our directory website on WordPress:

  • Custom post types
  • Custom fields
  • Custom taxonomies
  • A template to display your items
  • A search
  • A front-end form for users to submit their listings

I will show you how I created my website directory for classic cars. If you want to see how it looks and try and add the features yourself you can do so by downloading your free WordPress directory test sit.

example of a directory website on WordPress

1. How to create custom post types

We need custom post types to create the different sections for our directory website.

WordPress on its own only provides “Posts” and “Pages.” Of course, we’ll need more sections for our listings, blog and “Contact Us” posts among many others.

Here’s how I created my “Listings” custom post type:

  1. Head to Toolset -> Post Types, click Add New.
  2. Name your custom post type.

Custom post type for directory websites with WordPress

3. Click Save Post Type and your custom post type is ready.
4. You will now see a new menu appear on the sidebar with your “Listings” post type.

Listings on a directory website

2. How to create custom fields

Custom fields are the values for each piece of information that we want each post to display.

For example, you would expect a classic car’s post to display information about the price, the mileage, the car make and much more. Here’s how I added these custom fields:

  1. Head to Toolset -> Custom Fields and click Add New.
  2. Select Post Fields.

Post fields on a directory website

3. Name your field group.
4. Save your field group and select for which posts you want to use the fields. In my case, I chose the Listings option.
5. Select Add New Field to add each of your fields.
6. Choose which type of field you want to add. For example, for the Production Year field, I used the Number field.

Custom fields for a directory website

7. You can add other settings to your fields whether you want to make the field compulsory, allow multiple instances of it or add a placeholder.

8. Once you have added all of the fields click Save Field Group and your custom fields will be added to the post editor.

3. How to add custom taxonomies

Custom taxonomies are an important part of a directory website because they let you split up your posts depending on their features.

For example, when a user is browsing your website they will most probably be looking for a specific product. On a classic cars directory website, they might want a car with a convertible roof. You can create custom taxonomies so users can easily find all the cars with this feature.

Here’s how you can make custom taxonomies.

  1. Head to Toolset -> Dashboard and under Taxonomies click Add Custom Taxonomy.
  2. Name your custom taxonomy.
  3. Under the Taxonomy Type section, you can choose whether you want a Hierarchical or Flat taxonomy. A hierarchical taxonomy is great if you want to create subcategories of taxonomies.
  4. Select the post type which you want to assign the taxonomies to. I chose my Listings post type.

Taxonomies for a directory website

5. Click Save Taxonomy.

Now, when I edit one of the Listings posts, I will see a new section where I can add my taxonomies.

4. How to create a template to display your content

We have created our custom content but as of yet, we are not displaying anything on the front-end.

That’s why we need to create a template that will automatically display all of our custom content in the structure we want.

I used Toolset Layouts to create the template. Toolset Layouts is based on a Bootstrap grid that displays your page in rows of 12 columns which you can use to design your page.

To create the sections which will display our content we need to add cells. There are two types of cells which we will use for this template:

  • The visual editor – a general purpose cell to add static text and insert shortcode for dynamic content such as custom fields and custom taxonomy terms.
  • The post content – to render the contents of the post body.

Below is how I used these cells to make the template for the classic cars on my directory website.

  1. Head to Toolset -> Dashboard and click Create Template next to your custom post type. You will now be taken to Toolset Layouts.
  2. Choose how many columns you want each cell to take up and select to open up the editor.

New layout

3. Select which cell you want. For this example, I will choose the Visual editor.
4. Click on Fields and Views where you will see a list of shortcodes to add. For this example, I want to add my custom fields. Each one has its own shortcode. To demonstrate, I will add the custom field Production Year.

Fields and views shortcodes

5. Click Insert Shortcode.
6. Now we can see the shortcode in the editor cell. We can add additional text which will appear on the front-end so users can see what the field is about. As I have below:

7. Click Apply once you’ve added your fields and text and the cell will be ready.

This is how my template looks on the back-end.

And here it is on the front-end:

5. How to create a custom search

A search tool is the easiest way for users to find the exact car they want.

With a custom search, you can add multiple filters, a search bar to type in terms and other features such as AJAX updates to get live results on-the-fly.

The first thing to decide is where you want your search to appear. Below I added mine to the homepage.

Step 1: Create the search

  1. Go to Toolset -> Layouts and create a new template.
  2. Click to add a cell just like we did when we created our previous template and select the View cell.
  3. Click Insert Cell.

4. Click Display the results as a custom search and then click Create.
5. Under the Content Selection section, choose the post type you want to search through.
6. Under Custom Search Settings choose how your search updates results. Here you will find a number of different options:

7. Under Search and Pagination, you can choose which filters you want to add to make it easy for users to narrow down their search. Click New Filter to open up the options.

8. Now you can add your filters. I used the Price custom field to add a Minimum price and Maximum price.

9. Add in your filters and add any additional text similar to how we added text to shortcodes in the template. Here is how it looks after I’ve added my filters. Note I also added in a bit of HTML and CSS for styling.

10. Click the Submit button to add a button for users to send the search.
11. Add the Reset button so users can enter a new search with filters removed.

Our search is now ready for the front-end. But before we finish we still need to design how our results look.

Step 2: Design how the results will look

On the same page where we created our search, we can also decide how our results will look.

Under the Search and Pagination section, we can use the Loop Editor to design the output.

  1. Click Loop Wizard and choose how you want to display the loop. I have used the Bootstrap grid with four columns for mine.

2. Next, add the filters that you want to display along with the results. Here are the ones I added for my classic car directory website.

3. Click Finish and you will now return to the Loop Editor.

4. Click Save View and Save and your layout for your search is now ready.

Here is how my search now looks on the front-end:

6. Create a front-end form to submit listings

Front-end forms are a great addition when you build a directory website with WordPress because your users can simply fill them in when they want to submit a listing. That way you don’t need to design each one individually to display it.

Below is how I made one for my classic cars directory website. I created it using Toolset’s drag and drop forms editor.

  1. Go to Toolset -> Post Forms and click Add New.
  2. You will now see the forms wizard. Click Continue.
  3. Name your form and click Continue.
  4. Fill out the settings for your form including the post type it’s for, the status of the post once it’s submitted and whether or not the post expires. Click Continue.
  5. You will now see Toolset’s drag and drop editor for forms. Choose which fields you want to appear in your form. You can also add extra elements depending on what information you want each post to display. Click Continue.
  6. Add any email notifications that you want to send as soon as a form is submitted. For example, below I have added an email to send to users once they submit a new listing to tell them it is in review. Click Finish.
  7. Our form is ready but we still need to display it on the front-end. We can use the same approach as when we displayed our search and templates. Head to Toolset -> Layouts, create a new Layout and click to insert the cell.
  8. Click Post Form cell and click to Create the cell. Click Save and your form will now be displayed on the front-end.

Build your directory website with WordPress now!

Now that you know how to build the most important features for a directory website it’s time to start creating your own!

Let us know of your experiences with creating a directory website below. And if you have any problems then we would love to help!

Disclosure: This page contains external affiliate links that may result in us receiving a commission if you choose to purchase mentioned product. The opinions on this page are our own and we don't receive additional bonus for positive reviews.


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